So, today was day one of our NCBI (National Coalition Building Institute) training. It’s a two-day training designed to help attendees learn about others in their community, learn about themselves in relation to those others and that community, and explore their own feelings about the stereotypes, misinformation, self-talk, assumptions, experiences, associations and attachments they have in regards to their own and others lives.
We spent the day acknowledging, sharing, noticing, talking about and claiming the various groups and categories that the training participants associate themselves with – everything from racial and gender groups to economic and social categorizations. We did up-downs (laughingly called the “aerobic portion of the training”) where the training leader calls out various groups, associations, categories and experiences and those who place themselves in those niches stand while those who remain seated applaud those standing in recognition. For example, I stood for having been born or spent significant time in both the Midwest (born and lived) and the eastern south (lived). I also stood up as a woman, and stood for the category of those with a disability (I am non-functionally sighted without my glasses and my shoulder injury remains a significant, if intermittent and hopefully temporary, disability – especially today, since it was acting up to the point of torture and I could barely stand to have my arm hanging off my body).
We did exercises that asked us to give first, immediate thoughts to words describing various groups we did not belong to, such as black or protestant or gay, to explore the conscious and unconscious “records” we all have playing in our minds about other people – and then listened to members of that group respond to how they felt about the words that bubbled up in our heads. We got together in small caucuses as members of a group we held as a primary identity in our lives (the one I was in was “people who have experienced poverty”) to make a list of things we never again wanted to hear others say to or about, or have them do to, our group. Our group came up with a long list of things we never wanted to hear others do or say about those in poverty that included “stupid” “lazy” “shiftless” “scamming” “welfare frauds” “talking over or around us” “making decisions for us” “if they’d just go out and get a job” and much more. We spoke about groups we identified with and how they generated both strengths and challenges in our lives and our leadership. And so on.
One thing that both surprised and delighted me was that I am finally, publicly owning my identity as an ordained minister and becoming more comfortable stepping into ownership of that reality.
I’ve been an ordained minister since about 2002, but I’ve mostly kept it under my hat – mainly due to my own discomfort with it and with my public perception of spirituality, and out of fear that others would not take me seriously if they knew it was an online ordination. I am ordained through the Universal Life Church, a church that feels that those who are called to ministry shouldn’t have to be required to attend expensive schooling, belong to a certain religion or denomination or otherwise jump through hoops to do so and it offers ordination to any and all who feel the need for it without qualifying criteria of any kind. I feel it serves a real and important need, but some feel such ordinations are less than “real” (although they are, absolutely, legally binding).
It’s a long and weird story, for those who are interested:
I grew up listening to my grandpa preach, and during his sermons I often found myself imagining how I would use these stories, scriptures and parables to illuminate ideas, to illustrate problems and solutions and to help others find their way through the dark and into the light – often times working through them and (I thought, anyway) improving and polishing the delivery, perfecting the analogies and finding ways of getting the point across stronger and better than what I was hearing. In short, as a child I wanted to be a preacher, and I spent a lot of time “practicing” it in church by using the current sermon as a sermon-building exercise. (Yeah, not how most kids spend their church time, but I never was a normal child. You should see what I did to Barbie dolls.)
However, as I grew into a teenager and an adult, I grew wary of and finally violently disillusioned with religion for various reasons (most often having to do with run-ins with the “do as I say, not as I do” crowd, and those who twist God and religion to justify bad behavior and personal agendas, also known as the “nuke a gay baby whale for Christ” crowd). I also agonized over the fact that while every religion claimed itself to be “the one,” each had issues and beliefs and exclusions and orthodoxies that I just couldn’t countenance espousing and accepting for myself with any degree of integrity and honesty. But how can you become a priest or a minister or a preacher without choosing one religion over the others, without saying yes to one group of people and no to all of the rest? The answer, at least as far as I could see at the time, was “you can’t.” This, I must say, was a torment as large as any other in my early life, and was the cause of much spiritual, mental and emotional distress and essentially led to my decision to just quit religion and any thoughts thereof altogether.
I spent the better part of my adult life lost, spiritually, and trying to find my way back to something good and right-feeling. Eventually, in my mid to late thirties, I started finding myself coming slowly back into the light but this time on my own terms, having sloughed off others’ expectations and versions of what being a spiritual being looked like, sounded like and acted like, as well as finding my own definition of what my relationship with God was going to be. However, I still wasn’t comfortable with or convinced in my spirituality, and was still in that “tweak the nose of the establishment” phase (okay, so that one I’m still in, but anyway…)
So at one point, when I was – as I see now, looking back – on the teetering edge of accepting God and spirituality back into my life in a more or less solid way, I got a sudden wild hair up my bum to make good on a long-time, back-of-the-mind “why not” urge to sign up with one of those “instant minister” sites, and proceeded to get ordained online “as a joke” – a way to do a little nose tweaking and boy, won’t it be a gas when the family finds out, and so on. At least, that’s what I thought I was doing. (Beware those sudden, crazy urges that are related to nearby issues!)
As I look back, I realize that I was still so uncomfortable with my own spirituality and beliefs that, although I desperately wanted that reality in my life and still hungered to be a minister, I had to tell myself it was a joke in order to go through with it. It was a textbook case of whistling in the graveyard or crossing your fingers when you lie.
But the moment I printed out my temporary ordination certificate (in anticipation of my to-be-mailed suitable for framing version) and held it in my hands and read my name emblazoned on it as a bona-fide legally ordained minister, I realized I wasn’t joking. I literally felt my life shift. I felt a line being drawn behind me beyond which I could never return. And I swear I heard a very loving, very amused and very BIG small voice in the back of my head whisper, “Gotcha.”
Turns out, the joke was on me. I had come full circle and despite being all silly and joking with my friends who were watching me fill out the forms and egging me on, inside I realized that something big had changed inside me and even though I wasn’t ready to admit it to the guys around me yet, that it meant something to me far greater than I ever thought possible. It was real. It was important. And it was life-changing. I still laughed with my friends about what a grand joke it was, but it was the hollow and, I must admit, rather stunned laughter of the person who starts out to do something on a lark and only realizes after they’re committed that they’ve actually set forth on something serious and irrevocable and suddenly not at all funny.
So, anyway, I’m a minister. I can officiate at weddings. I can speak over graves. I can, theoretically, establish and lead my own church, although I have no such plans at this time (of course, I realize now the futility of mistaking my own plans for what’s actually going to happen, so there’s that). But I haven’t, until just these last few months, begun to really own it. To answer to it. To stand up when clergy are asked to stand and be recognized. To claim what I feel now to have been my much delayed birthright, handed down to me from my grandpa. Oh, I’ve piddled with it, including it here and there, checking that title off from time to time on polls and surveys and so on. But not with any real conviction, at least until just recently.
I did it at the Black Asheville conference and I did it again today, in public and with pride and probably much to the surprise of many of my colleagues and friends. (Who knew?)
And I was welcomed, accepted and even, in the capacity of the only ordained minister on the premises, asked to say the grace over our group lunch. Which is, ironically, one of the most important and moving things I personally could have been asked to do as a minister, since I have always felt very strongly about the basic blessings of life that we overlook, such as having ample food and adequate shelter, in our search for miracles and signs. But really, what can be a greater sign of your value to God than the fact that God has ensured your health and well-being, and validated your importance in the Big Plan, by placing before you a table laden not just with the minimum daily bread, but literally overflowing with a wealth of flavors, nutrition, textures, smells and colors, all in the presence of kindness, support and companionship? What could be a great sign of God’s love for us, and what could be more amazingly miraculous, than a plate of lovingly prepared food?
It was, for me, the very best introduction to ministerial practice that I could have asked for. And I stepped into that role with a feeling of finally coming home.